The 2009 documentary, Kids With Cameras, films a nationally acclaimed educator, Brad Koepenick, , teaching 11-19 year old autistic children the art of movie making. The camp lasts five days and each day is packed with learning all the aspects of film making storytelling, writing, acting, voice-over techniques, and other elements. A common problem of effectively teaching autistic children has been the communication barrier. Many children diagnosed with autism have difficulty articulating their thoughts and feelings, relating socially to other people, and processing information, especially in a typical classroom setting. But this hasn’t meant autistic individuals have nothing to say or don’t want to communicate. It doesn’t even mean that they can’t communicate.
Expression through art has opened a portal from and to the autistic mind, which should elevate art therapy as a legitimate means of developing children with autism. Film making which involves creative exploration and application, has facilitated greater ability in autistic children to socially interact. It gives them a means to understand and be understood – essentially, to communicate. Koepenick observes that even though research indicates that art therapy improves social skills, “these methods are generally overlooked as therapeutic tools.”
With the struggle to communicate comes frustration, and this frustration can be felt on the part of the autistic child and the child’s parent or teacher. This was the case between Forrest Sargent and his parents. As a nonverbal autistic child, who was trapped in a mind vibrantly active yet silent, Sargent acted out with violent frustration until his parents finally decided he needed to live in a group home. Eventually, his parents discovered the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) so he could make words using a letterboard. Through RPM, Sargent was able to tell his parents that he wanted a camera. When asked in an interview what he likes most about photography, Sargent replies,
“I love showing the truth of all things.” When asked how photography does that, Sargent answers, “It reveals the hidden light of life.”
And photography reveals more of the autistic mind. Ian Paregol, founder of the In-Focus Photography Project, recently took four photographers who have autism to Washington to take pictures of the Cherry Blossoms. There is an edition of Cherry Blossom photos on sale on the Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children’s website, all of them beautiful and many that are fascinating to contemplate.
There is more than one way to communicate, and there is more than one way to learn. Art, and its variety of forms – film making photography – is a promising means for autistic children and adults to express themselves, to be heard, and to be understood. And it’s a way for non-autistic people to feel more connected to people on the autistic spectrum.